Student profile
Sarah-Jane Stewart, PhD Health Psychology

Sarah-Jane Stewart

"My research project uses quantitative and qualitative research methods to investigate the construct of weight bias, exploring whether national obesity prevalence rates, personal exposure to obesity and weight normalisation, can predict weight bias, and much more."

Entry year
2018
Research project

Weight bias revisited: a critical evaluation into its operationalisation, prevalence and impact

Why I chose Surrey

I’m a Surrey alumna! I first studied here in 2013 for my undergraduate psychology degree and then stayed for my health psychology masters. My studies have fuelled my interest in health-related research and psychology, specifically understanding why we do things that we know could be damaging to our health. We know what we should do, and we know how to do it but often we choose not to.

During my first two degrees, I was encouraged by teaching staff to find out more about environmental, social, behavioural and psychological factors, to take my interest in health-related research further.

I decided to complete a PhD and realised that having both pastoral and academic support from teaching staff and peers was very important to my decision. I knew I’d get this at Surrey and couldn’t find any reasons to look elsewhere!

Once I decided on Surrey, I looked for financial support and was able to secure funding and a stipend, through St Richard’s Hospital, Chichester, who I previously worked for. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today!

My research project

Broadly, my research project uses quantitative and qualitative research methods to investigate the construct of weight bias. Through a series of studies and experiments, my PhD research aims to:

  • Evaluate how weight bias and weight bias internalisation are conceptualised and operationalised.
  • Investigate whether national obesity prevalence rates, personal exposure to obesity and weight normalisation, can predict weight bias.
  • Investigate how those with obesity feel about their increased risk of Covid-19 and whether this alters their health behaviours.
  • Investigate how the content of media campaigns (comparing body diversity versus thin idealistic messaging) may contribute to weight bias and behavioural intentions.

What I love about my research is that it’s relatable and has the potential to impact everybody - we all have a physical body, and we all have thoughts and appraisals about it that guide our behaviour. Understanding how weight bias impacts those with obesity is so important because it can shape the ways in which we support those feeling stigmatised due to their bodyweight and help influence how we educate wider society on both the prevention and management of obesity.

I’ve been keen to use the psychology facilities for my project and planned to run a virtual reality (VR) study in the extended reality suites, but have had to put the brakes on because of the Covid-19 pandemic. I’m now completing most of my work remotely, but when on campus I can be found as a (very) frequent visitor to the kitchenette, to meet my caffeine needs!

My supervisor has been an invaluable source of support during my PhD. Through our meetings, we’ve talked through each aspect of my PhD, and my research project has gradually evolved to meet my research aims. She’s also been supportive of my desire to teach while I research. Most importantly, she’s helped me realise that I don’t need to sacrifice my social life to achieve my PhD goals. With good organisational skills, you can get all you need done, and still have time to go to the pub with your friends in the evening. Getting this work-life balance right is what’s made my PhD so enjoyable so far!

In my experience, there’s plenty of opportunity for collaboration, you just need to seek it out. During my research, I’ve been keen to gain additional experience working on a systematic review and I’ve connected with some colleagues who were looking for an additional researcher to join their team. I’m now on my way to conducting a systematic review on the effectiveness of creative arts interventions for young people who’ve experienced trauma. This experience has taught me so much already and helped break up my own research by looking at a project outside of my usual area of expertise.

So far, I’ve had a very positive experience of my PhD journey. As cliché as it sounds, my highlights have been, and will continue to be, the people I’ve met and worked with. They’ve guided me through my first two years, picked me up when I’ve felt like I can’t do it anymore, and will most likely drag me over the finish line. I feel very fortunate to have made some friends for life.

"My supervisor has been an invaluable source of support during my PhD - she’s helped me realise that I don’t need to sacrifice my social life to achieve my goals."

My life at Surrey

Surrey’s a great location to be in, if like me, you love having such an easy and fast travel route into London. I’m also a big fan of all the beautiful walks on my doorstep, the myriad of shops, and all places you can go for a drink or a pub-quiz.

My career and development

Alongside my PhD research, I’m completing my Stage 2 requirements, so I can register with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) to work as a health psychologist. My Stage 2 training requires me to complete a three-month (or equivalent) placement and consultancy. Both have given me valuable practical experience, which will definitely help my professional development.

Throughout my research project, I’ve completed career workshops on offer at the Doctoral College, including career planning, interview skills and building a professional network, which have been really helpful.

Once I’ve completed my PhD, I’d like to use what I’ve learned in my studies to either pursue a career in applied research or work as a health psychologist. I’ve been able to develop a wide range of research and professional skills that will be valuable for whichever career path I choose.

My advice

Make sure you research your supervisory team before committing. A PhD is tough, and you want to make sure that you’ll be working with people who you can get along well with, as you’ll spend a lot of time with them.

Also, try to be open minded - to new ideas, new places and new people. I’ve frequently found myself outside of my comfort zone during my PhD and in reflection I wouldn’t have it any other way – it’s made me a better researcher!

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